“If you want witnesses then I am one,” says the Mother of Jesus in the astonishing new play, “The Testament of Mary,” that opened last night on Broadway.
Astonishment may have become a debased word in the exclamation-pointy world of theater reviews. So electrifying is Fiona Shaw, however, that the performance left me, along with the rest of the audience, struck silent after the final wrenching words were spoken.
Long-limbed, dark and hollow-cheeked, Shaw is an actress of fathomless expressiveness and dancerly motion. These well suit Colm Toibin’s lamentation, a text that calls for subtle flashes of anger, irony, eulogy, horror and regret over its 90-minute course.
The audience is invited to arrive early and enter the theater from the stage, where Shaw, wearing an orange hooded robe over a shapeless black gown, sits enclosed in a translucent square. Outside the cube, a live vulture gazes impassively at the crowd from its low perch, occasionally spreading its wings.
Once we’re seated, the cube lifts, the vulture is taken away and Mary addresses us. She has been visited regularly by two men, she says, with “brutality boiling in their blood...I am being cared for and questioned softly, and watched.”
She knows she is being debriefed, her stories warped and manipulated, for the purposes of the founding of a new religion.
We are in the Greco-Roman city of Ephesus, now in Turkey, where Mary was taken to live out her days after the Crucifixion. While we don’t hear from her much in the New Testament before or after what she describes here as “the vast, fierce cruelty” at Golgotha, Toibin gives her clear voice.
Mary demands to be heard. Her Son’s disciples, she says, were “misfits, only children like himself, or men without fathers, or men who could not look a woman in the eye, men who were seen smiling to themselves. Not one of you was normal, I said.”
So yes, “The Testament of Mary” is the blasphemy of a mother who witnesses her child’s corruption, told in language that is at once contemporary and timeless. Acts reported as miracles, strike her as so much wishful thinking (“I knew what happened,” she smirks, about Jesus’s conception) and embellishment by misfits with a capital-A agenda.
After Lazarus has risen, she yearns to tell Jesus that “raising the dead belonged to no one. And though others saw it as a miracle, I saw it as the end of everything.”
Her cynicism gives way, at least a bit, when she hears what is planned for Jesus. A mother’s expanding grief kicks in, along with unrepentant anger and horror. Mary’s description of the Crucifixion is wrenching. She speaks of encountering, near Golgotha, a man with an angry caged bird -- that vulture, perhaps -- and a sack half-full of live rabbits.
As her Son is dying, the man is delivering the terrified rabbits, one by one, into the cage, where the bird “went for their soft underbelly first, opening the terrified rabbit up until its guts spilled out, and then of course its eyes.” It became, she says, “a mild distraction from what was really going on.”
Shaw and her longtime director Deborah Warner build the drama with an ever-darkening sense of inevitability. The performance is guileless and brave, including some brief, essential nudity. Tom Pye’s harsh, stark setting is somberly lit by the great Jennifer Tipton and the brutal soundscape is by Mel Mercier.
It’s Mary insisting, to use an Old Testament phrase, on being heard, saying “hineni -- here am I.” And it’s shatteringly, trenchantly human.
Through June 16 at the Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 W. 48th St. Information: +1-212-239-6200; http://www.telecharge.com. Rating: *****
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(Jeremy Gerard is the chief U.S. drama critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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